The twilight zone of the sleeping brain

Source: BBC

By Matthew Tompkins

In Moscow this past summer, a woman drifted-off to sleep after playing Pokemon Go on her smartphone. Later that night, she was awoken by a crushing pressure. She opened her eyes and reportedly saw that she was being assaulted by a real-life Pokemon character. Not a person in a Pokemon outfit, an actual Pokemon. Panicking, but unable to speak, she struggled with the creature while her boyfriend slumbered ignorantly beside her. Eventually, she was able to rise, and the Pokemon vanished. After a brief search of her home, the woman proceeded to report the assault the police.

News of the woman’s police report was quickly, and somewhat gleefully, picked up by a variety of international tabloids. It rattled about the internet, and eventually surfaced on my Twitter feed. But my first thought, as an experimental psychologist with a particular focus in anomalous perceptual experiences was, “Well, that could have happened to anybody.” Although it’s impossible to definitively explain this woman’s experience, I nevertheless felt quite confident that this late-night Pokemon assault fit neatly into our existing understanding of sleep. Indeed, given what we now know about this mysterious neuropsychological state – and the strange sensations it can bring – one might arguably describe her experience as ‘normal’.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Historic accounts of demonic attacks share much in common with our modern understanding of sleep paralysis (Credit: Getty Images)

Imagery from your dreams can actually intrude into your waking reality

The short, seemingly paradoxical, explanation is that she could have been awake and she could have been dreaming. Setting aside the Pokemon for a moment, let’s first consider her report of waking up, unable to move, with a crushing presence on top of her. The technical term that might apply here is ‘sleep paralysis,’ a subtype of parasomnia, or sleep disturbance. Beyond the inability to move, these periods of wakeful paralysis are often accompanied with vivid multisensory hallucinations. Effectively, imagery from your dreams can actually intrude into your waking reality.

The content of hallucinations can often be thematically linked to the feeling of paralysis –  manifesting as visions of an intruder in the bed who is physically holding the sleeper down. Records of incidents attributable to sleep paralysis can actually be found throughout history and across cultures with records dating back at least as far as 400 BC. This first reference has been traced to the Zhou Li/Chun Guan, an ancient Chinese book on sleep and dreaming. The text includes a taxonomy of different types of dreaming and researchers have identified E-meng (‘dreams of surprise’) as sharing many of the characteristics that are now associated with sleep paralysis. Depending on the time period and cultural context, these nightmare visions can be interpreted in different ways.

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